February 14, 2021

FTV: The Smothers Brothers Part 1

  In the world of entertainment, the list of stories about siblings working together is a long one.    In the music end of the business, these tales often focus on the dysfunctional pairings like the Robinson brothers (The Black Crowes), The Everly Brothers (Phil and Don), and the Gallagher brothers (Oasis).  Some concentrate on groups like The Carpenters (Richard and Karen) and The Beach Boys (The Wilson brothers) who lost members due to illness or tragedy:  Karen Carpenter succumbed to the accumulated ill effects brought on by anorexia, Carl Wilson to cancer, Dennis Wilson drowned, and Brian Wilson was almost done in but eventually recovered (mostly) from psychosis compounded by drug use.  Sometimes the siblings will work together early on (Edgar and Johnny Winter, Rick and Randy Derringer (nee: Zehringer) of The McCoys) only to drift apart (or into solo careers) later on.  In that the Smothers Brothers (Tom and Dick) have worked together professionally since the late 1950s and are still talking to each other seems quite remarkable if one remembers the catch phrase that became a staple part of their act.  Anyone who has siblings could relate when older brother Tom would blurt, “Mom always liked you best!” during their back and forth banter.

     The sibling rivalry that would become the Smothers Brothers calling card wasn’t something that just happened.  Tom spent a decade absorbing lessons that became the foundation of their early career.  Why he gravitated to a profession in entertainment made more sense to Tom when he later figured out that his dyslexia made it hard for him to read both written material and sheet music.  This difficulty no doubt sharpened his ability to learn and replicate music by ear.  Acting as the head of the family, Tom also took his role as ‘big brother’ seriously to the point of including brother Dick in his musical adventures.  Their youthful bonding was spurred by the unsettled nature of their mother’s life after World War II.

     The Brother’s father, Major Thomas Bolyn Smothers, Jr was born in North Carolina in 1908.  When the boys (born in 1937 and 1939, respectively) were still very young, the family relocated to the Philippines.  With rumblings of war echoing across the Pacific, the Major sent his pregnant wife Ruth, Tom, and Dick to California where they established a home just north of Pasadena in the town of Altadena.  Major Smothers (‘Smo’ to his close friends) survived the Bataan Death March only to perish when the Japanese ship full of POWs he was on was mistakenly bombed by Allied planes as it was enroute to Korea.  Major Smothers’ death occured on April 26, 1945, just five months before the Japanese surrendered.  Smo never met his youngest, daughter Sherry, who was born stateside in 1941.  Tom remembers being “eight or nine” at the time when, “My mother brought me in, sat me down, and said ‘Your daddy was caught in the war and died.  Now you are the man of the house.’  Tough for a nine year old.  She was crying.  I was crying, too.”

     Looking back, Tom and Dick can clearly see that their unsettled life over the next decade began with the loss of their father.  Ruth Smothers sought comfort in a bottle and a number of relationships that were doomed before they began.  Tom acted as a buffer for his younger sibs, often telling them their mother had ‘fainted’ rather than exposing them to the truth;  that she had passed out from drinking.  The unstable environment and revolving door of new ‘fathers’ found the kids farmed out to various relatives over their childhood and adolescent years.  Despite the turbulent atmosphere caused by their mother’s addiction, they remained close.  Appearing after a skit on their television show (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour) where Annett Fabray appeared as mother Smothers in a send up of the ‘Mom always liked you best’ schtick, Ruth was brought on stage and asked if she was their real mom.  She was supposed to reply, “Sadly enough, I am,” before kissing Dick and playfully slapping Tom on the face.  That is how it played out in the rehearsal, but she asked Tom if she could alter it a bit during the taping of the show.  She got a bigger laugh (and Tom said ‘his favorite moment of the show’) when she kissed them both before slapping Dick instead of Tom.  Ruth Smothers passed away the day before the Brothers began rehearsals for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour 20th Reunion Show that aired on  February 3, 1988 but “Mom always liked you best” never left the act.

     Tom was studying advertising at San Jose State while simultaneously dabbling in his music hobby.  He kept Dick involved and eventually convinced him to join him at SJS (where Dick would work toward a career in elementary education).  In addition to their studies, they played in a series of small music groups.  Their first official ‘paid’ gig was at a college beer hall where the ‘pay’ consisted of beer and pretzels.  They were raw and often bombed with the college crowd, but not because they were drinking their pay.  Dick explained it to David Bianculli in his book Dangerously Funny – The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (Touchstone – 2009):  “Tom wasn’t that comidically developed and I was not developed as a straight man.  [After one particularly forgettable set] Tom made an announcement, ‘Anybody who wants to join us who has got some songs and knows what they’re doing, talk to us afterward.’” After the gig, Bobby Blackmore hobbled up to the brothers (his leg was in a cast from a skiing accident) bearing all the right credentials to become ‘Gawd’.

     Blackmore knew a lot of songs, possessed a pleasant voice, and played tenor guitar just like Nick Reynolds of The Kingston Trio.  The Kingston Trio came together singing at a fraternity luau and gathered a strong following in the Palo Alto area.  With the folk music of The Weavers and The Limeliters as their base, The K-Trio kickstarted a new boom in folk music when their first album produced a number-one hit, Tom Dooley, in 1958.  Not only did The Kingston Trio provide a template for the first version of The Smothers Brothers and Gawd, they provided the Brothers their first break.  The K-Trio were performing at The Purple Onion in San Francisco when their record sold three million copies.  They moved over to a rival club, the hungry i, giving The Smothers Brothers and Gawd the chance to audition at the P.O.  Bobby wasn’t a ‘brother’ so he opted to be ‘Gawd’, an identifier that would eventually disappear from the billings.   Tom recalled, “We auditioned, and someone was talking out in the audience, and I said, ‘Shut Up!’ And people thought that was very funny – and it was.  So all of a sudden they hired us.  We couldn’t believe it.”

     The manager of the Purple Onion, Barry Drew, liked the act that consisted of Tom playing guitar and doing rambling introductions, Dick singing, and Bobby providing tenor guitar, banjo, and lead vocals.  It was Drew who suggested perhaps Dick should also play an instrument instead of just standing there.  Tom rented out a stand up bass and began teaching Dick enough basics to flesh out the trio’s sound.  At first, Tom refused to repeat any of the ad libs he would toss in between numbers, feeling the audience would know if he was repeating himself.  When his well began to run dry, Dick prodded him to try recycling the line that got the best reaction.  Tom reluctantly tried out Dick’s idea and got a big laugh.  He repeated it again the next show and again got big laughs.  The younger brother had shown Tom how to refine their comedic side even before he refined his role as the act’s straight man.  The Onion extended their contract to sixteen weeks and after they had done a summer booking in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, they were back at the P.O. for another sixteen weeks.  Positive reviews in the press and their first local TV appearance made them a hot ticket.  Regardless of their new found success, Blackmore was tiring of the grind.  Bobbi married a professional skater and moved to Australia, whittling the Smothers Brothers down to a duo with uncertain prospects.  

     Dick was newly married and planning to return to college to pursue his education degree when another folk group offered them an eight week run at the club they had founded in Aspen, Colorado.  The Limelite Club was owned by band members Glen Yarbrough and Alex Hassilev (who took their band name, The Limeliters, from the club).  They guaranteed $200 a week with free room and board.  It was hard to pass up as evidenced by Tom and Dick’s travel plan.  Dick only had twenty dollars in his checking account but he did have a new fangled VISA card.  The card was only good in California so they rode their credit card to the state line.  A mini-jackpot won from a slot machine in Elco, Nevada provided the gas money needed to get them all the way to Aspen.  Dick summarized their debut as a duet:  “We didn’t really know [if it would work].  We didn’t sense the movement, how much more professional we were.” 

     February of 1960 would become a pivotal period for The Smothers Brothers because things were happening beyond their new gig in Aspen.  The first was to cause a seismic shift in the world of comedy when an unknown accountant from Chicago named Bob Newhart recorded his first album in front of a live audience.  Self made tapes of Newhart’s ‘act’ had been discovered by Warner Brothers Records who offered to make a record with him.  Listening to The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart today, it is impossible to believe that this was his first effort in front of a live audience (hastily arranged at a club in Houston that had an open date).  The album was the first comedy album to hit number one on the charts and it would open doors for The Smothers Brothers.  Newhart was appearing across the street at the hungri i when the Brothers were at the Purple Onion, so they were well aware of each other’s schtick early on.  

     The second event involved Jack Parr walking away from his NBC talk show over the censorship of one of his six minute joke-stories about a woman visiting Switzerland and having the locals confuse her question about the location of the W.C. (water closet) with a local landmark up the road with the same initials (Wayside Chapel).   Later, when the ruffled feathers were smoothed, Paar returned.  He opened the show saying, “As I was saying before I was interrupted . . . When I walked off I said there must be a better way of making a living.  Well, I’ve looked and there isn’t.”

Paar’s return as the ‘King of Late Night TV’ (and at that time, the only late night show going) would soon provide The Smothers Brothers with their next big break.

    Meanwhile, back in Aspen, Tom and Dick took the stage at The Limelite for the first time as a duo.  With Tom on Dick’s right (necessary because a fall from a moving car as a toddler resulted in a skull fracture that rendered Dick deaf on his left side), they were unsure how the new act would go without their now departed lead singer, Bobby.  They describe it as being a lightning bolt like transformation.  Without their third member, they stumbled on the idea that Dick (who was previously the mum member on stage other than singing) could be the straight man, setting up Tom’s comedic ramblings.  Dick says, “Once we got onstage, within the first couple lines – boom!  It was just there.  There was just something about the naturalness of being two.”  Tom adds, “We didn’t think we could do it.  Bobby Blackmore, he always sang lead, and we sang harmony, and we had to learn these different songs and we didn’t think we had strong enough voices to carry them.  Pretty soon, we’re singing solos and doing comedy.  It was amazing!”

     It was a fertile place to be and the Brothers spent a lot of time mixing and mingling with other artists in the Aspen-Denver area.  Teenaged future folk star Judy Collins opened for them on their first night at The Limelite.  They also got to know Walt Conely, Bob Gibson and Mason Williams.  Williams would become Tom’s best friend, a major contributor to their Comedy Hour (seven years later), and recording star in his own right (Classical Gas).  They weren’t a polished act by any means, but the template for The Smothers Brothers’ act that would bring them to a national audience on CBS was now in place.  How far they were from ‘the big time’ is illustrated by their future manager Ken Kragen.  Kragen shared a story about a snowy night in Aspen when a long line was waiting to be let into the club to hear the Brothers play:  “Tom and Dick walked up there, arguing over something and they got in a fight.  They were now wrestling in the snow, right next to the line of people who were waiting to go in and see them at the club.”  This same sibling combativeness would become the linchpin of their act, albeit without physical altercations erupting on stage.

     With the Aspen booking behind them, The Brothers found themselves headlining a new Denver folk club called The Satire (managed by the aforementioned Walt Conley).  A 19 year old Bob Dylan had hitchhiked down from Minneapolis to play The Satire just before he became a hot property, but Dylan and the Brothers did not meet.  Dylan was on a different trajectory than Tom and Dick and stylistically they were not on the same page.  The Purple Onion was more than happy to have them back when they returned to California.  An acetate of their live act was recorded with an eye toward them recording a comedy album.   

     When it was finally released, The Songs and Comedy of the Smothers Brothers!  At the Purple Onion was not entirely the truth.  The only thing that survived from their recording at the Purple Onion was the introduction.  “The shows were good,” Dick explained.  “I think they just blew it on the recording end.  But we were committed – plus we owed [The Purple Onion] for giving us our first break.”  They had made a ‘Plan B’ recording at The Tideland Club in Houston and that is the performance heard on the album.  The “Live, at the Purple Onion” introduction is the only vestige of the earlier recording.  The album would not be released until May 1961, but by then the Brothers were in New York.  They set down in The Big Apple during the brutal winter in January 1961.  The Smothers Brothers would soon  enter Jack Paar’s orbit in The Big Apple and this would mark the next big step forward in their career.  We will pick up their introduction to a national TV audience in Part 2 of The Smothers Brothers.

Top Piece Video:  Classic early Smothers ‘Brothers Boil That Cabbage Down’